When I was very young, my mother encouraged me to write like Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare only had twenty-six letters to work with,” she told me, “and now that you know the alphabet, you have them, too!” In my memory, she enthusiastically clapped her hands after she said this.
Of course, nothing I wrote sounded like Shakespeare so I figured he must have a trick. It must have to do with how many of each letter he used in his plays – if only I could count all the letters and discover his code!
Fifty years later, I decided I’d see what else I could do with those twenty-six letters. It was now possible, with the help of computers, to count the letters in any book! Instead of constructing texts, I’d deconstruct them. I’d convert them all into “instant messages” of art. And – naturally – I started with the man who raised the stakes in the first place.
I started work on this project in 2010 – as an ode to Mum and her enthusiasm. Each print took me many months to complete. My original prints are quite large (36″ x 36″) printed in archival inks on archival paper, in a limited edition of 25.
Each of my digital prints contains all of the letters Shakespeare used in his play of the same title. I assigned each letter of the alphabet a different colour and threw them more or less randomly onto a digital canvas. Below are some examples.
With this play, I used 105,262 letters. I started with the two lovers, scattering the letters of the name ‘Romeo’ in the left rectangle, and the letters of the name ‘Juliet’ in the right rectangle. Then I scattered all the remaining letters into the centre rectangle. When I slowly moved the Romeo and Juliet rectangles towards each other, overlapping in the centre, I was astonished to see a shape forming in the colors. Some have told me they see a heart in the middle, others see figures – but this is the thrill of randomness.
Midsummer Night’s Dream Unlettered
I had more fun with this one, using a total count of 71, 272 letters. I started with the fairy circle in the middle, using only the letters found in the word, “fairies.” Then I made wedges of color, using the letters of a specific key character. I placed these wedges opposite each other, according to how they relate to each other in the play. As I was working, I held in my mind a bird’s-eye-view of a park on a summer’s evening, where this play was being performed. What I got was a playful dance … and a play within a play!
Above are some of the stages of planning for Midsummer Night’s Dream Unlettered My first canvas for the “Fairy Circle”, uses only the letters used in the word “fairies.” On the yellow wedge for the character, “Hermia” you can see I have only laid down the capital letter H and the lowercase e’s of her name. The orange wedge of lowercase a’s is beginning to form another character in the play.The square shows the first 3 layers of my digital canvas as I prepare the “stage”, using only the letters I knew I wouldn’t need for the main characters.
Eventually, all these canvases were layered together to form the final abstract print.
Counting the letters through a computer program was easy, but keeping track of which letters I’d used and which were still available was a momentous task. I used a calculator and many handwritten notes. The image above shows some of my preparatory calculations for Midsummer Night’s Dream Unlettered.
I researched the colour palettes used by well-known artists of Shakespeare’s time to establish the colors for each letter in this print – artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, who experimented with new approaches and techniques (I figured he would have approved of what I was doing!) and the architect, Inigo Jones. Shakespeare was born the same year Michaelangelo died … and in 1570, when Shakespeare was only six, John Dee introduced to Britain the concept of applying mathematical principles to art. I kept the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare on my desk as I worked … and once I had flattened the layers, I thought I could see the profile of someone’s head in the centre of my work! This print uses uses 135,002 letters.
I tried my hand at some sonnets, too:
Sonnet 18 Unlettered
The opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” set the mood for this piece above, and for my choice of colour palette. I used Zapfino font for its flowery effect and had the room to vary the size of the letters.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning Unlettered
Sonnet 43 Unlettered
I was influenced by her intensely romantic and lyrical phrases when she penned words like, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” When I chose the colours and size of letters, I wanted to echo her soaring emotions. Although the majority of letters are placed randomly, I was able to position certain letters so that some words may form in the eye of the beholder, expressing the many facets of love.
*The original electronic source for my Shakespeare series is the Complete Moby Shakespeare: the HTML versions were created by Jeremy Hylton and placed in the public domain by MIT. The font is called Il Shakefest, from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. The original source for my other works is Project Gutenberg. Letter counts were provided through a software program designed for me by Louis Trochatos.